by Linda Johnson
In my opinion, jacks are the epitome of strength and sensitivity in the world of equine. These wonderful qualities are enhanced, or intensified, by the jacks' remarkable intelligence and an extremely strong hormonal drive. Like other donkeys, jacks are not of a wild nature and readily submit to being handled by humans. They are quite different than a jennet or gelding in many of their behaviors, however. Some of these behavioral differences are not necessarily desirable, however, I feel the outstanding nature of others creates a balance that makes jacks very special.
Over the past 14 years, my husband Jerry and I have had the opportunity to handle and observe numerous jacks at our farm, in the show ring and on visits to other farms. During this time, our farm has been a temporary home to many jacks as part of our involvement in donkey welfare and rescue. Training and caring for many jacks whose levels of education varied from having never been handled, to having been very mishandled, has been a tremendous aid in furthering our understanding of jack behaviors. It also served to instill in us a deep respect for the strong feelings jacks possess. They exude more character and charm than any other animal I've ever been around. Jacks are captivating creatures. I cannot claim to be an expert on jack behavior but hopefully my sharing some experiences and observations which have benefited me, will help others like me in their endeavor to understand and properly manage jacks.
As you've probably already surmised, I have the highest regard for a jack's abilities and thoroughly enjoy working with them. The fact that I breed donkeys is the primary reason I own a jack. If I were keeping donkeys merely as pets I would not own one. Due to the volatility of a jack's hormonal activity, they are not suitable as pets, and in fact can be potentially dangerous in a pet environment. Keeping a jack exclusively as a pet is an injustice to the jack as well.
They have no control over the hormonal activity in their bodies which compels them to exhibit undesirable/dangerous behaviors out of frustration at being unable to perform as the breeding animal they are. Another concern I have (after 14 years of donkey welfare and rescue) for the jack being kept as a pet is their longevity. The majority of people will not own their pet donkey for its entire life. Finding a good home for a jack can be difficult (particularly if it is not a breeding quality individual), finding a home for an aged jack can be impossible.
Countless people keep jacks as pets. Most who do this believe their jack is an exceptional individual, incapable of being anything but a loving pet. Many people formerly of this belief have been made painfully aware of their jack's volatility after witnessing an attack by the jack on a human or another pet, some of which have resulted in fatal injuries. Jacks should be kept only in a breeding environment and be handled only by individuals who have the knowledge and experience to adequately control them.
Interestingly, the jacks responsible in the accounts of serious jack attacks that have been conveyed to me by either the victim or a witness to the attack, have all been by jacks considered to have very nice dispositions and who were very easy to handle. This is also true of the one incident of a jack attack we had here at our farm years ago. The jacks in these incidents ranged in age from 2years to 26 years old, and in size from miniature to mammoth. These attacks were all attacks on humans (with the exception of the one at our farm), usually their caretaker or handler. The 2 year old jack was miniature who had been purchased as a weanling for a pet. He was a terrific, gentle pet until his owner took him to a show in the spring of his second year. In the company of the other donkeys at the show, the little jack transformed into a raging maniac to the total shock of his unprepared owner. By the time this person sought help a large portion of his forearm was swollen and discolored with various shades of black, purple and red due to the bite he suffered from the diminutive jack, his loving pet.
A good friend of mine suffered a similar injury from her miniature jack, a well mannered individual, who she had owned and shown for several years. In her situation the jack was intent on getting to an area where some horses were. In her attempt to halter and move the jack to a different area, he whirled his head around quickly and grabbed her thigh as she was trying to put his halter on. It was nearly a year before she healed from the bite and the scars will remain forever. A co‑worker of my husband's was attacked by his standard jack last year. He had owned the jack for some time and had a good relationship with him. One evening when he was out in the jack's pen filling the water trough, without warning the jack grabbed him, knocked him down, began stomping him with his front feet, drug him for a short distance and then picked him up and tossed him through the air like a rag doll. Miraculously he suffered only severe bruises. The worst jack attack I've heard of recently is an incident involving a mammoth jack who attacked his owner's wife while she was caring for him in her husband's absence. This jack was well mannered and his owners thought very highly of him until the day he savagely attacked without warning. Considering what this person went through, she is very fortunate to be alive, she did however lose an arm.
The most surprising jack attack to me is one by a 26 year old standard jack that I know well who is owned by a friend of mine. This jack is a great old guy that she has owned since he was 8 or 9 years old. He rides and drives, loves children and is always surrounded by them when he's out in public. He is very well mannered and responds well to discipline through voice commands alone.
He attacked his owner in his pen shortly after she had come in to do some grooming. She had greeted him and proceeded on to her gelding horse that shared the pen. After brief contact with the horse she turned and bent over to pick something up. At that moment her jack grabbed her in the middle of her back, shook her and gave her a toss. She did not suffer any broken bones but she showed me her back about 6 months later and you could clearly see the scars of his teeth permanently etched into her back. The area was still somewhat red and quite sore to the touch.
The only jack attack we have had at our farm was an attack on another donkey (a gelding) by a 30" miniature jack we previously owned. This little jack was extremely docile and loved by everyone. The gelding he attacked was his friend and pasture mate. One Sunday morning he viciously attacked the gelding. We heard the noise from inside the house and rushed out to see him hanging onto the gelding's leg with obvious intent to seriously injure him. Jerry, my Mother and I all went into the pen to break this up. Jerry took a hold of his head with one arm, and with his other arm around his neck, began to try to pull him away. It had no affect whatsoever. I grabbed his ears thinking he would be sensitive to me pulling him by the ear.....no response. My Mother grabbed a 2x4 and was whacking him with it but it made no difference.
He was locked on to the gelding's leg and it seemed at the time nothing short of a bullet to his brain was going to convince him to let go. It was Jerry's quick thinking that ultimately did the trick. Remembering that when the donkeys play, which simulates the moves they use in fighting, they are very protective of their legs. He quickly reached down and grabbed both of the jack's front legs at the cannon bone area. The jack let go of the gelding's leg immediately. The gelding's leg was a bloody mess and was quite sore but there was no permanent damage.
The jack attacks I mentioned here all have one thing in common. The perpetrators were all jacks regarded as gentle, well mannered individuals with no history of aggressive behaviors. With the exception of the standard jack who lived alone, each of these jacks was experiencing a change in their daily lives/routines. Two of the attacks by miniature jacks occurred in situations where the jacks were in a new area and reacting to the presence of other donkeys or horses they wanted to interact with. The miniature jack who attacked the gelding donkey was alone with the gelding in his usual home but he had been being used for breeding that week. The 26 year old jack had a relatively new gelding horse pasture mate. The mammoth jack's owner and daily caretaker was away and he was being cared for by the owner's wife.
These violent attacks are exclusive to jacks in the donkey community. A disrespectful, spoiled, or frightened jennet or gelding may inflict an occasional bite or kick, however, their propensity for this type of action can be observed in their day to day interactions with herd mates and handlers. The fact that we can readily anticipate undesirable behavioral actions by these animals allows us to be prepared to discourage it. In contrast to jack attacks, this type of behavioral problem can easily be corrected with proper training over a period of time.
I believe jack attacks can be attributed to a jack's instinctive need to maintain order in his herd and the overwhelming force of the hormone, testosterone, responsible for his strong desire to breed. Testosterone has often been cited as the reason for jack attacks. That would seem to be evident in cases where a jack attacks while his focus is on breeding, or attacks by jacks who are never used for breeding and become extremely sexually frustrated . However, many attacks are by well‑mannered jacks who are part of a carefully managed breeding program. These attacks occur spontaneously, seemingly unprovoked, when a jack is at rest and has not been sexually aroused, or deprived. In the incidents of this type that I have witnessed or been made aware of, each has had one thing in common. With each of these attacks, there has been a recent change in the jack's routine or environment. Due to a jack's highly sensitive nature and strong instincts to keep his herd in tact and under control, I believe these changes, no matter how subtle they may seem to us, trigger some degree of response in all jacks. Some of these responses are manifested in jack attacks.
In the wild, jacks are the only dominant figure in a herd of donkeys. Changes to a herd's structure, or routine occur only with the approval or defeat of a herd's jack. He is extremely possessive and protective of his jennet's and offspring. A jack will utilize many of the same behavioral actions associated with some jack attacks when disciplining, or establishing control over a jennet in his herd. Some of the most violent jack attacks bear more resemblance to the tactics a jack would use to drive intruders away, such as a jack challenging for control of the herd.
In the 12 years that I have owned one of my jacks, I have repeatedly observed reactions by him that I consider to be substantial evidence of a jack's instinctive need to dominate and maintain control of his herd. He lives in a pen across the fence from his herd of jennets which permits him to keep a watchful eye on them and to visit through the fence. He seems quite content with this arrangement and the interaction between him and the jennets is very congenial. The jennets often seem to regard the jack's presence with somewhat of a smug attitude. However, when something frightens the jennets, they run to the jack's fence seeking his protection. The scene changes drastically when I introduce a new jennet to the herd. He becomes enraged and exhibits very aggressive behavior toward the new jennet, particularly if she is attracting a lot of attention from the other jennets or me. This behavior continues until the jennet comes into heat and he is allowed to breed her. He then seems to accept her as part of his herd. He often will try to bite and be very rough while breeding the new jennet. He will also become very agitated if any other donkeys, especially the other jack, gets in close proximity of his jennets. If he sees me handling donkeys, other than the jennets in his herd, it evokes the same response of extreme agitation. I try to avoid these situations out of respect for his feelings and in an effort to maintain peace on the farm.
In some way, as his handler, I believe my jack considers me a part of his herd. Perhaps he sees me as the eldest, wisest of his jennets, or maybe I am a mother figure to him whose judgment he does not challenge. I really don't know. I do know he feels very possessive of me but that we share a wonderful relationship of mutual respect and affection. He will punish me for my interaction with donkeys outside the herd but not by vicious attack. His method of punishment is to shun me, in contrast to the physical punishment his jennets would receive for such actions. Never in 12 years has he exhibited any aggressive behavior toward me. He did however put a pretty good bite on Jerry one time when he was upset at him for bringing two strange donkeys into his barn. Jerry does not handle this jack but is more like a buddy to him. I suspect for this reason, the jack does not have the same respect for him as he does for me and was disciplining him as he would one of his jennets.
While it would seem there is no accurate method of predicting when a jack may launch a violent attack, there are a number of things I feel we can do to limit the possibility of such an attack. Consistency in our care and handling techniques, being very observant of the jack's behaviors on a day‑to‑day basis, and limiting change to the jack's environment as much as possible are some things we can practice fairly easily. By maintaining stability in this manner, I believe the stress that may cause a jack to attack is minimized.
In handling jacks, we must be firm and completely in control, while recognizing that they are very sensitive animals whose cooperation can be completely lost through rough mishandling. A jack who fears his handler will focus his attention more on evading the abusive individual than obeying his commands. With the average jack, there should be no reason to resort to abuse as a training method. Jacks are highly intelligent and as a general rule quite eager to please when handled properly. In my opinion, if an individual finds it necessary to resort to abusive conduct in handling a jack, the person either lacks the skills to properly train a jack, or has neglected to be thorough in their training program. Due to the affects of the hormone testosterone, jacks do have a more precocious nature than jennets or geldings. This added element dictates that anyone handling a jack must be aware of the affects it can have on a jack's behavior in every situation and never let their attention be diverted from the control of the jack, even briefly.
Having worked with jacks for many years, I have learned to recognize the signs that a jack is indulging in a testosterone moment. The jack becomes rigid, ears up and focused away from me, with a look in the eye that is very intense. All of these may be accompanied by a bray, and in the latter stages there is usually a drip from the nostrils. The ears are generally the first tell‑tale sign that he's diverting his attention away from me. At this first sign, I quickly give him a verbal command and physical cue to focus his attention on me and that's usually the end of it. Waiting until the jack is fully engaged, exhibiting all of the signs I mentioned, can be too late to be effective in changing his focus and it could be very difficult, if not impossible to maintain control. Jacks are unique multi‑faceted animals, awesome in stature, capable of both extremely gentle and very violent behaviors .
Through increasing our knowledge of what motivates jacks, I feel certain their behaviors can be effectively managed with proper handling in a suitable environment.